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Who Really Owns a Nonprofit?

The concept of who owns a nonprofit organization can be hard for some to grasp, especially given that the answer is, “No one…and everyone!”  We encounter this confusion with new clients on a fairly regular basis.  And, given people’s understanding of how basic business operates, it is understandable.  In order to fully appreciate the concept of “non-ownership”, it is helpful to first talk about the various types of business entities.  Then, we’ll look at organizational purpose.  By the end of the article, it should make a lot more sense.

There are several different types of business entities.  For-profit companies make up most of them.  Here are a few (there are others)…all of these have an owner or owners:

Sole Proprietorship: One person who conducts business for profit.  The sole owner assumes complete responsibility for all liabilities and debts of the business.

General Partnership: Two or more individuals as co-owners of a for-profit business.

Corporation (for-profit): The corporation itself assumes all liabilities and debts of the Corporation.  A corporation is owned by shareholders.  A shareholder enjoys protection from the corporation’s debts and liabilities.

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